Foundations of the faith: What we believe about the four last things

12 mins read
Last Things
The four last things involve the last mysteries of the Faith that Christians encounter. Shutterstock

In this, the final article of Our Sunday Visitor’s series “Foundations of the Faith,” the subject matter — appropriately — is the four last things as handed on by our Catholic faith: death, judgment, hell and heaven. Reflecting on such ominous topics in the month of December can seem quite appropriate for both the pessimist and the optimist alike.

On the one hand, the pessimist, who focuses exclusively on his or her demise, finds the cold, dark nights of winter with its gaunt and barren trees a perfect composition of death.

Catholic Faith Foundations: Back to the Basics
This is the last of a 12-part series that has covered core teachings of the Catholic faith. Our Sunday Visitor has collected these articles in a single volume, “Catholic Faith Foundations: Back to the Basics,” and it is available at

The optimist, on the other hand, while acknowledging the inevitability of death, takes comfort in the seeds of life that are buried beneath winter’s snows and that will rise again “like wheat that springeth green.” Even the great feast of December — the Nativity of the Lord — reminds one of the lasting hope we have in Jesus, who has saved the world by his cross and resurrection. The forces of darkness cannot overcome him who is the light of the world.

Clearly, bringing Jesus’ saving acts to bear upon the four last things makes all the difference. Without faith, death can be seen in a merely utilitarian way. Rather than being an experience that one “lives,” including reflecting on it and preparing for it, death becomes something to be forestalled at all cost when one’s life is going well and hastened when one’s life becomes unbearable.

Thus life itself becomes simply another possession that one can have or throw away, rather than a gift to be experienced. Moreover, without faith, judgment and hell and heaven are parts of a grand fairy tale made up by weak people unwilling to face “reality” (see Evangelium Vitae, No. 22).

The Christian, by contrast, sees the four last things, precisely, as parts of a very real and profoundly meaningful life with God that extends beyond the grave. Indeed, life cannot be understood fully without acknowledging all four. Each of them reflect God’s love and mercy and justice in its own way, and how each one does will be explained presently.

Given the promises of Jesus — that he would, once and for all, destroy the power of death and open the gates of heaven — every Christian (and everyone searching for the truth) should develop a healthy appreciation of the last things. Death, judgment, hell and heaven — understood in relation to Christ — must be a part of one’s overall examination of life. Otherwise, one may miss the blessings such an examination brings.

Worse, if God and his truth are shut out willfully, one may suffer the fate of the damned (see Gaudium et Spes, No. 19; Lumen Gentium, No. 16).


Among the four last things, death is seen by both believers and nonbelievers as the end of the physical existence human beings enjoy on this earth, but that’s where the agreement ends. A faithless view stops at the grave; there’s nothing more to consider. The Catholic Church, on the other hand, sees death within the context of God’s revelation, and there’s a lot more to consider.

Based on Scripture and Tradition, and ultimately on Jesus’ witness, the Church recognizes death as the just punishment for the freely chosen sins of human beings:

“God did not make death, nor does he rejoice in the destruction of the living. For he fashioned all things that they might have being. … It was the wicked who with hands and words invited death. …” (Wis 1:13-14, 16; see also Wis 2:23-24).

In the creation stories found in the book of Genesis, the authors convey the truth that God created a universe that is good, and it is designed according to his laws. God also created human beings to enjoy a relationship with him, which was to be marked not only by fidelity to his will but also by stewardship of his creation and even by the generation of new life. God made human beings in his image, male and female he made them: a communion of persons (reflecting the Trinity) who enjoyed — each one of them — the gifts of reason and free will.

In other words, when making man and woman, God did not desire automatons, but sons and daughters who would choose freely to love each other and their creator.

Human beings, however, chose not to honor their relationship with God, but instead invited death into the world by committing the original sin: rejecting the world as God created it and, instead, asserting themselves as equals to God. Hence the separation from God and the loss of mortal life. Before the first sin, human beings had eternal communion with God as a gift. After sin, an eternity without God is a real possibility.

But it’s not the only possibility. God, who gave the gift of freedom to man and woman, is supremely free. He could have responded to sin in a number of ways: scrap everything and start again, or create a new world with new creatures. God responds, however, by honoring the relationship with human beings, even though they did not. And he does so in a just and merciful way that allows both the consequences of sin to follow (i.e. death) and the gift of freedom to remain intact.

In a word, God’s response is Jesus. From the moment man and woman sinned, God set into motion his plan of salvation. Human beings could never offer an adequate recompense for their sins, so God offers it for them in the person of Jesus (see Rom 5:17). In effect, God opens the floodgates of his love. The world that had been marred by sin is thoroughly bathed in love through Jesus, “who destroyed death and brought life and immortality to light” (2 Tim 1:10). The sinless one dies for the sinners. What could underscore so powerfully the goodness of creation and, at the same time, the evil of sin? What could convince human beings better — or more gently — that God still desires their eternal happiness than his responding to the evil of sin not with anger, not with bloodlust, but with love?

Jesus has saved the world through his life, death and resurrection. Human beings now have the opportunity to accept salvation, to turn back to God by receiving his forgiveness and yielding to his will and, after dying themselves, to enter eternal life.

Understood in the light of Jesus, death takes on a new meaning. It no longer has power over a person who abides in Jesus, for that person has been freed “from the law of sin and death” and received “the spirit of life in Christ Jesus” (Rom 8:2). St. Paul received this revelation more fully than most and ordered his life upon it: “For to me life is Christ, and death is gain. … I am caught between the two. I long to depart this life and be with Christ, [for] that is far better. Yet that I remain [in] the flesh is more necessary for your benefit” (Phil 1:21, 23-24).

St. Paul grasped the essential meaning of Jesus’ saving grace for humankind. While living, he was already united to Jesus, for the kingdom of God was already present in a hidden way (see Lk 17:20-21) and, by his ministry, Paul could bring more people to the faith as well. As for death, that would only deepen the union with Jesus.

Therefore, death need not be hastened or forestalled, but can be greeted with serenity when it comes. Passing from this life to the next is simply moving from one way of living in Jesus to another. St. Paul tried to peel away a bit of the mystery by saying, “that which is corruptible must clothe itself with incorruptibility, and that which is mortal must clothe itself with immortality” (1 Cor 15:53). Indeed, the Scriptures show that Jesus’ body had been transformed after the resurrection (see Mk 16:12; Lk 24:16; Jn 20:14, 21:4). The meaning is this: For one who remains faithful to Jesus, life is changed, not ended, at death.


The Church’s teaching on death can have both a comforting and sobering effect. It is comforting to know that life continues, but the fact that one’s time on this earth is limited should bring some weightiness to one’s decisions. But if death fails to do this, then the Church’s teaching on judgment hopefully will (note that the Church uses “man” in the universal sense, meaning “man and woman”): “Each man receives his eternal retribution in his immortal soul at the very moment of his death, in a particular judgment that refers his life to Christ: either entrance into the blessedness of heaven — through a purification or immediately, — or immediate and everlasting damnation” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, No. 1022). There will also be a universal (or last) judgment of the entire universe at the end of time (see CCC, Nos. 1038-1041).

The basic meaning of the Church’s teaching about judgment is that the choices one makes have value — they can be good or bad. Also, God determines the value of one’s choices and metes out the appropriate reward or punishment. This teaching tends to evoke two dominant feelings in people: fear and satisfaction.

The Last Judgement by Michelangelo. Public domain

Fear, of course, is not a bad feeling to have if one is living a sinful life; it might even prompt one toward conversion. Fear, in the sense of awe, is appropriate too, for God is able to judge everyone and every act in perfect justice and mercy. Only God knows the depths of each person’s heart; only he knows the advantages and disadvantages a person had; only he knows the full circumstances of every person’s life and every situation. God knows the full truth and will judge accordingly. The only bad kind of fear to have is one that is distrustful of God’s judgment, for how could God mistreat the very people he created and saved out of love?

Satisfaction is the other common feeling many people have regarding God’s judgment, which is good if by “satisfaction” one means a sense of contentment concerning God’s ultimate victory over all evil. A person who is content with God’s judgment is able to work diligently for justice on earth without vindictiveness or impatience, knowing that every good effort made at telling the truth, building solidarity, or righting wrongs cooperates with God’s victory. A “satisfaction” that hungers for revenge is not a good thing, for it reveals a distrust in God’s perfect judgment, which will have the final word (see Rom 12:17-21).



After a person has been judged, he or she will spend eternity in one of two states: hell or heaven. (Many people think of “hell” and “heaven” as places, but they are more accurately denoted vis-à-vis the relationship with God.) Hell is defined by the Church as the “state of definitive self-exclusion from communion with God and the blessed” (CCC, No. 1033). God’s judgment in such a case would be to allow the person’s choice to take effect, as the Catechism relates: “God predestines no one to go to hell; for this, a willful turning away from God (a mortal sin) is necessary, and persistence in it until the end” (CCC, No. 1037).

The very mention of “hell” can cause some people to cry unfair (placing them in a long tradition going back at least to when Ezekiel was writing; see chapter 18). How could a loving and merciful God allow anyone to suffer eternal damnation? Other people even ignore hell and maintain that Jesus, who loves everyone, will also save everyone. Granted, the thought of hell may be horrifying, but the words of Jesus are clear: “The Son of Man will send his angels, and they will collect out of his kingdom all who cause others to sin and all evildoers. They will throw them into the fiery furnace, where there will be wailing and grinding of teeth” (Mt 13:41-42).

To understand the terrible mystery of hell, the Church directs people to the mystery of freedom, which is a gift human beings have from God. It is a gift that bestows great dignity and enables the person “to initiate and control his own actions” (CCC, No. 1730). But freedom also means that the person is responsible for his or her choices. “The more one does what is good, the freer one becomes. There is no true freedom except in the service of what is good and just. The choice to disobey and do evil is an abuse of freedom and leads to the ‘slavery of sin'” (CCC, No. 1733).

Ultimately saying no to hell means saying yes to God. Again, God does not want robots that are forced to love him, but true sons and daughters who choose to love him and their brothers and sisters in freedom. Nevertheless, if they have the freedom to love, then they also must have the freedom not to love. The latter choice leads to hell.



The alternative to hell is heaven, and whereas hell is the state of eternal separation from God, heaven is its opposite:

“This perfect life with the Most Holy Trinity — this communion of life and love with the Trinity, with the Virgin Mary, the angels and all the blessed — is called ‘heaven.’ Heaven is the ultimate end and fulfillment of the deepest longings, the state of supreme, definitive happiness” (CCC, No. 1024).

And just as a person gets to hell by how he or she lives on earth, so it is with heaven. The crucial difference is that the person who chooses heaven uses his or her freedom to make every effort at yielding to and accepting God’s grace. Another difference is that a person can get to hell by oneself, but getting to heaven involves the whole body of Christ, head and members, as St. Paul reminded the Corinthians: “encourage one another and build one another up” (1 Thes 5:11).

The essence of heaven is the relationship that human beings enjoy with the Holy Trinity (which includes all the saints), a perfect communion that restores the order God intended when he first created everything. In fact, the Church teaches that, following the Last Judgment, not only humanity but also the entire universe will be transformed into its glorified state (CCC, No. 1060). For human beings this means a reunification with their bodies, now immortal through the grace of the resurrection (see CCC, No. 1052).

Still, to enjoy this communion, human beings must act on God’s grace now, here on earth. What this means, practically speaking, is honoring one’s relationships as God intended. The book of Genesis suggests “that human life is grounded in three fundamental and closely intertwined relationships: with God, with our neighbor and with the earth itself” (Laudato Si’, No. 66). Sin disrupted these relationships, resulting in separation from God, alienation among neighbors and disharmony with the earth. God’s love in Jesus has made it possible to restore all three.

The choice is before each human person: to love as Christ loves, faithful to the Father, united in the Spirit, and working for the salvation of all. If a person joins this work now, he or she will experience its perfection in heaven.

The four last things properly understood in the context of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection need not be so ominous. For example, in what is most likely an apocryphal account, the story is told about St. Bonaventure eating a meal with his fellow friars. One of them asks Bonaventure what he would do if Jesus were to initiate the Last Judgment at that very moment. And Bonaventure answers, “I’d finish eating my soup.” Apocryphal or not, it captures well the peace, even in the face of death and judgment, of one who abides in Jesus.

David Werning writes from Virginia.

The Toll of Death
Even Christians who hope in the resurrection of Jesus can be deeply affected by death. One must face one’s own death and (usually) the deaths of family and friends. Indeed, persons may experience great anguish at the thought of dying, just as Jesus did in the Garden of Gethsemane (see Lk 22:39-46). A person also may “weep with those who weep” (Rom 12:15) at the death of a beloved friend, just as Jesus did with Lazarus’ family (Jn 11:35). Expressing these deep and real emotions is good and healthy, and it does not mean that one has no faith. Again, Christians may grieve, but not without hope (1 Thes 4:13). They trust in Jesus’ words: “Amen, amen, I say to you, you will weep and mourn, while the world rejoices; you will grieve, but your grief will become joy” (Jn 16:19).

If one needs a model for how to approach one’s own death, then certainly Jesus is the one to follow. He experienced the normal human emotions as death came near, but he remained steadfast in his belief that the Father would raise him. For a model of how to approach someone else’s death, Mary of Magdala may be the best. St. John tells us that “Mary stayed outside [Jesus’] tomb weeping. And as she wept, she bent over the tomb” and peered inside (20:11-12). Mary’s love for Jesus was expressed in her grief, but her faith prompted her to keep looking through the darkness of the grave in hope that Jesus was not gone forever. The rest of the account reveals that she is rewarded for her fidelity by being the first to see the risen Lord, and she then shares the good news with the apostles (Jn 20:11-18): The Lord is risen! “Death is swallowed up in victory” (1 Cor 15:54, 57).

David Werning

David Werning writes from Virginia.